It has to be said that people can be a little dismissive about the dangers inherent in the occupation of jobbing poet. They point out that young men who go on to serve with one of our Condottieri captains must brave the blades of their foes. This is of course true, but at least they get to do this wearing armour. People would look askance at me if I were to start declaiming my work wearing a suit of demi-plate.
But while it is rare that we have to face cold steel, there are other dangers. Those who have never been forced to perform for a patron don’t realise just how real they are.
Many years ago now I used to be asked to take part in poetry readings given by the Askhew sisters. These two ladies, Nihilia and Sinilia, passed away some years ago and I doubt we will see their like again. Neither married although neither lacked admirers; personally I feel that they shunned matrimony as it would reduce their opportunities for managing their sister’s life.
Nihilia was teetotal, and believed in a diet rich in raw or lightly cooked vegetables. Sinilia was of the school which held that drinking a bottle of wine a day was the route to robust health, and that it didn’t really matter what you ate so long as your diet included plenty of sugar, cream and of course, red meat.
Given that there probably wasn’t a pennyweight between them and they died within a month of each other, nobody is entirely sure which diet was the most efficacious.
Still I was a young poet. I’d not reached my twentieth year when I first performed for them. I arrived upon the scene at about the time that the Battle of the Punchbowl started.
Nihilia decided that for one soiree she would serve punch. It cut her to the quick to serve folk wine, and punch struck her as a short cut to imposing temperance. Instead of a dozen bottles of wine she would make a large bowl of fruit punch. She would make it with a little fruit as well as fruit juices and similar, plus a fair quantity of water. Then purely as a token gesture she would include one bottle of wine.
This she served one evening and whilst it didn’t meet with universal approbation, I drank a glass of it and frankly it was no better or worse than similar concoctions served by others.
Of course, because it contained wine, Nihilia never drank her punch. Sinilia on the other hand did and pronounced it vapid. The second time it was served she took the liberty of surreptitiously adding two bottles of pure spirit to fortify it adequately.
As somebody who was handed a glass to refresh me I can vouch for the efficacy of the brew. Several ladies drank rather too deeply of it and had to be assisted into their Sedan chairs.
Flushed with success, however covertly achieved, Sinilia decided to make other improvements. On the next occasion the punch was to be served, as well as the clandestine addition of spirit, she ostentatiously added a lot of chopped fruit. It too was well received and Sinilia probably became a little smug, proffering advice to other lesser cooks who had not scaled, as she had, the pinnacles of culinary excellence.
Nihilia was irritated by the fact that her healthy punch had been hijacked and the next time Sinilia produced a punch, Nihilia was ready. She added to it a fair quantity of finely chopped raw root vegetables.
Guests adopted the habit of not sticking the ladle too deeply into the punchbowl, merely skimming off a small portion of the liquid to appear sociable. One guest, who had perhaps partaken of more glasses than were entirely wise, was quietly whisked away by friends. He was advocating the theory that if exposed to a naked flame, the spirit would burn off, boiling the liquid and cooking the vegetables, thus providing an excellent broth. The fact that he was approaching the punchbowl with a lighted candle in one hand convinced them that it was time to act.
As the poet, performing to the assembled company, I was uniquely disadvantaged. Not only could I not get my own drink, I was forced to drink two glasses of the damned stuff, one provided for me by Nihilia and the other by Sinilia. I couldn’t even put the glass down and ‘forget’ it because they would find it for me to ensure I drank it.
Indeed this is where the problem lay. Both ladies considered that I needed ‘building up.’ Thus both would expect me not merely to drink the liquid, but also to enthusiastically eat the ‘fruit’ as well. Other guests could furtively sip the liquid through clenched teeth, straining out the solid bits which they could then stealthily return to the punch bowl. In my case both ladies would fetch me glasses of the perfidious liquor. They would ensure that the glasses were chock full of the solid matter; much of it had already been rejected by others. They would then watch me closely to ensure that I partook of their bounty.
I was trapped. I had too few patrons to gratuitously insult any of them by refusing their food and drink. I did have the advantage that I was young and healthy and young people can notoriously eat just about anything with impunity. Yet even I was beginning to feel that something had to be done. Especially when other guests realised they could gain favour with their hostesses by feeding me the damned stuff!
I was perhaps fortunate that somebody stirred Devil’s Pomatum into the mix one evening. It is a seasoning so hot that a small spoonful will be more than adequate to season a large cauldron of stew; (Such as might hold enough to feed a ship’s company at one sitting.) By my reckoning in this case somebody had stirred their spoonful into a modestly large bowl. Nobody was sure whether it was Nihilia who did it, because Devil’s Pomatum is ‘herbal’ and therefore has to be good for you; or whether Sinilia did it because she wanted to ‘spice things up a bit’ without realising exactly what she was doing. Whoever was at fault, both sisters drained full glasses to try and shame us into partaking. They then spent the rest of the evening drinking milk. The next time they entertained, guests were offered coffee or a selection of tisanes provided by Nihilia. Sinilia merely handed round plates of those delicate little sugar pasties which consist of just enough pastry to ensure you don’t get too much cream or sugar on your fingers.
Now then it has occurred to me that I have some news for you. As you know, I already have a small volume of my memoirs in circulation
Well I have decided to produce a second volume, which is called
‘Tallis Steelyard, a harsh winter and other stories.’
It has met with some critical acclaim, one reviewer commented, “This is a collection of stories about Tallis which go to show that it’s not all drinking afternoon tea or partaking of soirees for a jobbing poet. We discover some of his early life, some of the society feuds he became entangle with, and the story of how he met his wife and acquired the boat on which they live. Great little tales!”
Another wisely observed, “The sheer ingenuity of Jim Webster’s short tales never ceases to amaze me as I work my way through this, and his other books.”